Former NFL coach Brian Billick, who led the Ravens to a Super Bowl XXXV title, is now an analyst for NFL Network. This is his first column for NFL.com.
Due to the lockout and the unique nature of this year's offseason, there are three criteria I am using to determine how teams will fare this season: coaching continuity, quarterback stability and veteran presence.
The Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers meet all three conditions and that alone is reason enough to sit them atop the early power rankings.
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As you might have noticed, the so-called "Dream Team" is not one of those five squads. The Philadelphia Eagles' lack of coaching continuity is a major concern heading into the 2011 season. They have a new defensive coordinator, and not to be dismissed, new line coaches on both sides of the ball.
Now, this is not a criticism of those coaches' abilities. Howard Mudd on the O-line and Jim Washburn on the D-line are among the best ever at their positions, and I am very excited to see how Juan Castillo's offensive experience translates to him now running a defense. But the fact that there is this much transition on the staff is something worth watching.
There's no doubt stability at quarterback will be key for any team this year. Think I'm wrong? Quickly list your top 10 quarterbacks. Now make a separate list of your top 10 teams. The lists shouldn't be all that different.
How long will this last?
Last season the Chicago Bears utilized a long-tested formula for playing good defense: Run the ball and force turnovers.
They ranked third in the NFL in scoring defense, and although they were near the bottom in rushing attempts, they didn't abandon the ground game altogether. The Bears also ranked third in takeaways.
Following the 2009 season, coach Lovie Smith fired offensive coordinator Ron Turner and brought in one of the best offensive minds in the game, Mike Martz, in an effort to improve the Bears' production. Early on, there were questions about Martz' ability to jell with his more defensive-minded coach and reel in his tendency to air it out on every play. After the bye week, however, Martz proved everyone wrong -- including me.
Martz followed orders and did what was in the best interest of the team and the talent at hand. In doing so, the Bears dropped to 30th in the NFL in total offense and fell from ninth in the league in explosive passes in 2009 to 24th in 2010.
The Bears held it together to make their way to the NFC title game, but now expectations are high, and they have a brutal schedule that starts with Atlanta, at New Orleans, and then home against defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay. I will be interested to see if Martz can stick to this winning formula, especially if the opening schedule puts the Bears in the hole.
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Redskins will be better, but they still need a QB
I believe Mike Shanahan will show his true credentials this year by bringing the Washington Redskins back from the 30th-ranked rushing attack and the 31st-ranked defense in 2010. He and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett are two of the best in our business. Together, they have rebuilt a solid team that will surprise people.
There is one glaring problem for this prediction to play out, and it just so happens to be at the most important position in the game.
The Redskins have two starting quarterbacks. Whenever a coach says he has two quarterbacks with starting potential, it really means he has none. It is hard for me to imagine either Rex Grossman or John Beck as anything but a caretaker for this offense. Just being competitive is not going to be enough for Dan Snyder and the long suffering Redskins fans. Their options at the end of the year are to go get a quarterback in free agency or via trade (already done that once, and failed) or draft the QB of the future, and encounter all the pitfalls that come with a rookie signal-caller.
Here is a risky pick: Green Bay wins the NFC
Most people are picking Green Bay to return to the Super Bowl, and for good reason. The Packers have all three of the aforementioned key ingredients, and it's scary to think how good this offense can be with a more stable offensive line, healthy running backs and the return of tight end Jermichael Finley.
But my reasons for ranking Green Bay atop the NFC are less objective. Beyond having one of the best coaches/play-callers in the league in Mike McCarthy and maybe the best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, fate has dealt the Packers an advantage most Super Bowl champs don't enjoy.
Usually, when you win a Super Bowl it's because you had a winnable schedule and avoided the injury bug. That was not the case for the Packers. Their slew of injuries and schedule looked more like that of a non-playoff team rather than a champion.
When things fall your way, odds tend to dictate that the next year you won't be as lucky and repeating is that much more difficult. But given the Packers' bad luck last season, those same odds would suggest they catch a few more breaks. That's unfortunate news for the rest of the NFC.
I wouldn't want to be in this situation
Imagine if the Carolina Panthers have the same type of offensive season as they had a year ago, when they were 32nd in the NFL in total offense.
Now, imagine Cam Newton having a pedestrian rookie year -- highly likely -- with twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. Or he finishes with more yards on the ground than in the air.
Now, fast-forward to next April, and imagine Carolina holding the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Imagine Andrew Luck having won the Heisman Trophy with close to his 3,330 yards, 70 percent completion rate and 32 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. Imagine.